Wellness Programs Gaining Global Acceptance, According to Survey

ABOUT one in five employers offers wellness programs, according to a global survey on workplace wellness strategies. Multinational employers that have developed a global wellness strategy are 50 percent more likely to provide wellness programs outside the United States than other employers in those geographies.

The survey, released by Buck Consultants, a human resources consulting firm, analyzed responses from 555 organizations representing approximately 7 million employees. According to the findings, objectives for wellness programs vary by region. In the United States, health-care cost reduction is the top goal. Canadian employers cite employee attraction and retention as the primary objective, while in Europe, top goals are to reduce employee absences due to sickness or disability. Respondents in other geographies seek improved workplace morale as the main objective for offering wellness programs. Improving worker productivity is also among the top goals across the globe.

"This broad range of objectives is a good indication of why wellness initiatives are becoming popular around the world," said Barry Hall, a Buck principal who directed the survey. "Employers recognize that improving their employees' health and reducing the risk of disease also returns real value to the company in multiple ways."

Following a plethora of "feel good" wellness programs that came and went in the 1980s and 1990s, employer interest in wellness has surged in the last few years, driven by financial motivations. However, while employees may appreciate many of the new programs and incentives, Buck's survey assessed how well today's wellness initiatives achieve their underlying business goals.

Among U.S. respondents, 33 percent report a reduction in health-care cost trend rate attributable to their wellness initiatives, with about half reporting a reduction of two to five trend percentage points per year.

"That's a significant financial return," Hall said. "But consider the remaining 67 percent of U.S. employers. Their lack of measurable success in this area is likely due to a combination of factors. Many newly minted wellness initiatives have not yet had time to generate a measurable impact, and some employers may not have the capability to measure such results. Furthermore, not all employers have yet found the most effective tools and programs to achieve the impact they desire or expect. Clearly, many employers still have work to do to demonstrate the return on investment necessary to ensure senior management's continued support of their programs."

The components of global wellness initiatives vary by region. The most frequently used worldwide are employee assistance programs (EAPs), health risk assessments (HRAs) and immunizations (such as flu shots). The fastest-growing program components around the world include technology-driven tools, such as Web portals, online programs and personal health records. Some geographic areas predict significant growth in these elements (30 to 50 percent) over the next one to three years.

Hall stated: "By making the programs more personalized and action-oriented, these cost-effective tools seek to deliver greater participation and results than the one-size-fits-all efforts of earlier wellness initiatives."

Transforming company culture and even leveraging peer pressure is another growing tactic, with worksite programs such as employee health fairs and workplace wellness competitions on the rise.

Survey respondents spend an average of U.S. $135 per employee per year on wellness programs, although some spend more than U.S. $500 per employee per year. This cost typically includes educational resources, programming, health services, screening, coaching, technology and employee communications. In addition, employer respondents spend an average of U.S. $100 per employee per year on incentive rewards to motivate individuals to participate in these programs and to measurably improve their health. Such incentives are far more prevalent in the United States than Europe, and can exceed US$500 per employee per year for the most generous programs.

Despite the growing use of incentive rewards, only 16 percent of respondents rated their incentive programs "extremely effective" or "significantly effective" at changing employees' behaviors.

"This may be because formal incentive systems are a relatively new development in the workplace wellness field, and many employers are only just getting their feet wet -- with varying degrees of success," Hall said. "Despite these challenges, employers indicate significant plans to expand their incentive programs in the next one to three years."

For more information on the survey, "Working Well: A Global Survey of Health Promotion and Workplace Wellness Strategies," contact Bucks Consultants at http://www.buckconsultants.com.

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